It has taken me several days to come to terms with my anger over the events of January 6, when insurrectionists invaded the Capitol in Washington, D.C., after a morning—indeed months—of instigation founded on false grievances and outright misinformation. For our nation to move forward, many things must now happen, beyond the investigations and the impeachment process that began earlier this month. As a nation, we must find a way to rebuild the civic and educational structures that bring us together. And I believe libraries can play a critical role in this process.
This is hardly a shocking conclusion. Because I’m a librarian, educator, author, and information scientist, one might even rightly say it is a self-serving one. After all, I am invested in the success of these institutions. But I am invested in these institutions because I truly believe in the words our nation was founded on—“to seek a more perfect union.” These words represent a mission, a starting point. We did not form a perfect union; we formed a government to seek one out. And I believe this ongoing challenge is deeply connected to the core mission of librarianship: to improve society through knowledge creation in our communities.
I have seen firsthand how libraries act as instruments of community cohesion. I have seen how our public libraries—from providing rich collections to offering diverse programs like drag queen story hours—help us weave our social fabric together neighborhood by neighborhood, person by person. I have seen libraries host difficult conversations on race. I have seen libraries bring people together on issues of immigration. I have seen libraries stand up for the poor, the incarcerated, and the marginalized.
Our nation’s school librarians engage our youth in true inquiry and spark their passion for learning. I have seen school libraries with books and makerspaces, hydroponic gardens, and talent shows. And I have heard school librarians increasingly sound the alarm that literacy in this digital era must go beyond the kind of learning that comes from a textbook—that we must teach our youth the skills they need to interrogate the messages and claims they see online, in the media, and in the conversations we have in our homes, our communities, and in our nation.
I have seen academic librarians dedicate themselves to preparing college students to do actual scholarly research and investigation beyond Google and social media. I have seen how archivists not only preserve our cultural heritage and scholarly record but make it accessible and meaningful. And I have seen how these stewards of our history help keep us faithful to the values on which our nation was founded, while also forcing us to acknowledge and learn from our flaws—our racism, bigotry, exclusion, and authoritarianism.
I am invested because today’s information professionals, including IT workers, social media strategists, and data scientists, must have an ethical code to complement their technical skills. Educated information professionals will never treat their fellow citizens simply as consumers, or dopamine-triggered users, but as human beings who, at their core, seek safety and certainty and meaning in their lives. Because history shows us that citizens deprived of a meaningful place in society, a voice in their democracy, and economic opportunity are the very citizens susceptible to demagogues who mask narcissism with patriotism and self-interest with twisted visions of greatness.
From my experience as a librarian and information scientist, the events of January 6 bolster a popular axiom in our profession: that there is no neutrality in information work. All views are not equal, nor are they required to be presented in an equal fashion. A campaign to overturn a free and fair election through false claims of fraud is not the same as a rightful protest over systemic racism and inequity. Treating them as equal out of some misguided notion of objectivity or bias avoidance must be rejected. The future of our nation rests not on uncritical fealty to a political party’s rhetoric but on the critical capabilities and education of its citizens.
Our nation may be divided at this moment. But throughout our history, we've see that when we come together in civil, honest conversations based on facts and science, history and truth, we find commonality. And I believe that our nation's libraries and schools are the essential social infrastructure that will help move us past this dark period in our history.
R. David Lankes is director of the University of South Carolina’s School of Information Science and author of The Atlas of New Librarianship (MIT); and The New Librarianship Field Guide (MIT). He is also the cohost with Nicole A. Cooke of The Skillset podcast, presented by PW. This op-ed was drawn from a longer post, which can be read here.